When gamification becomes a distraction

When gamification becomes a distraction -- Mervi Emilia Eskelinen

It's been almost twenty years since my last French lesson. I wasn't a very motivated student, for many reasons. I had personal issues that were gradually killing my enthusiasm in learning. And the standardised learning and testing felt unfair and stiff to me. I learn differently. Thus, through all these years, I was losing the little French I knew.

In these years I have now and then tried to get back on learning French. I've tried different methods, nothing really working. Perhaps my motivation hasn't been quite there.

I have used Duolingo before. I did previously, for a little while, practise a bit French with it. But mostly I have been going into other languages, even trying to start learning Spanish. I like the simplicity of the app. I'm not so much into the increasingly game like features. Also, if the app doesn't offer lessons in your native language, you must be fluent in one of the languages provided to be able to use it. I use it in my second language, English, which I have noticed to have an affect in my learning. Often I don't only translate between two languages, but three.

Duolingo is one of many apps and web services that have risen to ride the wave of e-learning. It comes with several languages, and is basically free. Paid extras are offered, which are mainly not necessary for your learning.

The website of Duolingo boasts about the gamification. How it's implemented in every lesson, every step you take. There's streak count, fluency rate, experience points, gems and health. Gems can be used to buy stuff, like extra lessons or hearts, and they can be bought with real money.

Health, or hearts, functions like lives in a combat game. You have only so many, and if you lose enough, it's game over. In this case, if you make a mistake, you will lose one of the five hearts. When you have lost all five the lesson is aborted, and you are given options to regain the hearts. Options like paying. Or waiting for several hours. Watching an advertisement. Many things that have nothing to do with learning the language. One little mistake can be costly to your learning health, so you better not make mistakes. No typos, no clicking the wrong button in the middle of the lesson.

The part that really started to frustrate me was the fluency rate. As I started practicing French with Duolingo, the app asked if I was a beginner or not. In my stupidly strict honesty I responded I'm not a beginner. This prompted me with a test, to find out the level of my skills. The test was quite short and seemed superficial. After it I appeared to had passed multiple skills and lessons, and even one "checkpoint". My fluency rate, which I noticed soon, was something like 25% at this point. Felt nice.

Nevertheless, I revisited some of the skills I had apparently passed with the test. This was partially because I didn't realise that I could have moved on and start to learn the new lessons. Not sure if this is a problem with the UI, or if I just don't get it. (Read: This is a problem with the UI, the user should be able to get it immediately and easily.)

This revisiting the skills upped my fluency rate to 30%. I felt sceptical. Surely I wasn't 30% fluent in French.

As I realised I was able to move on from the basics to the lessons I hadn't yet passed with the test, I started to really see the game in this learning. In some lessons I was losing hearts. And while I was gaining my daily dosage of experience points and keeping up my streak, my fluency rate was declining. Today it is 14%, which seems to have went down from 15% I had the last time I used the app. Does it decline when I don't take the lessons?

It seems that the fluency rate declines from many reasons. If you make those mistakes that cost you health/hearts. If you don't take enough lessons, or get far enough in learning new lessons in a certain time period. And even from using the hints feature within lessons.

In all this I realised something was going wrong. Not the declining fluency rate, not even the occasional lose of health. The issue was that I got more invested in playing the game than learning the language.

Gamification is popularly utilised to make users of a website, service or app to be more engaged, motivated and loyal. In it the website, service or app is made to work as a game, to have game like features. It's used to make you come back, to invest into doing certain things, and even to pay.

The popular social media platforms in likes of Facebook and Twitter make you play game of reach, likes, shares, ReTweets, other engagement, followers, and friends. The more of all these you have, the more likely you are to come back, post updates, like and share. Meanwhile, the brands (and even you, if you wish to put money into it) can gain more reach by paying for advertisement, which then is shown to you, when you come back to play the game.

Unfortunately gamification has became so popular it is applied to any website, service or app. This creates many issues. Often games are implemented without much thought, just because. Not everyone wants to play games, and not everyone likes every type of a game. Not to forget, every type of a game doesn't fit in every situation.

It takes meticulous research and testing. Finding the genuine way to gamify your website, service or app takes time and effort. Half-baked and forced games aren't helping your website, service or app. They will only push users away.

Besides, games can be an accessibility and usability issue, no matter how well they are done. Flashing images are known to trigger seizures, or at least headaches and nausea. Certain types of games can be difficult or even impossible to play, for instance if you can't see or hear, or have issues with fine motor skills. No, games really aren't for everyone.

My problem with Duolingo, besides not being a fan of playing games for very long times, was one of the common mistakes with gamification. The game became a distraction. I wasn't concerned about learning French, I was concerned about gaining experience points, not losing health/hearts, and trying to figure out how I can increase that blasted fluency rate and stop it from decreasing.

I know, I'm not everyone. There are people who probably love playing the game, and somehow manage to learn while doing it. This is just one story of how things can backfire with gamifying. One way of how implementing games can actually work against an app. What is turning me off of Duolingo and even making me unmotivated with trying to brush up my rustier than rusty French. I'm aware I am to blame too. I'm getting too easily sucked into the game (and being a sore loser). I'm becoming so easily unmotivated.

There are, though, many more generic issues with this type of gamification. Sometimes it doesn't make sense. Health/hearts can be gained back by learning more, but also by watching an advertisement video, which has nothing to do with your learning process. I mean, how does a trailer of a new Angry Birds game relate to my French practise?

Often the game is not very rewarding, or at least gaining the rewards can become too overwhelming, too much like work. The gameplay is concentrated in gaining all these different types of points (or not losing them), which becomes the reason, rather than a reward. The game distracts you way too easily from the main idea, learning a language. The game part itself is repetitive, and eventually leads to game fatigue. For those who enjoy competition, there's not even that. Though for me, adding comptetion would be the last straw and a definite "no".

While a person starting to use Duolingo may be motivated to learn a language, the game features of the app are not very motivating. The gameplay doesn't really give that much anything for the person playing. The only part that works in this way are the gems, which work as some sort of game currency. As you can use gems to buy a limited amount of extra lessons, it may motivate you to try and collect more of them. Wanna learn to flirt in French? Gain 1000 gems, and you'll be set. But other than that, you must bring your own motivation in. This game doesn't provide much of it.

Gamifying, in order to really work as a means of motivation and engagement, needs to be done well. In learning, it needs to be motivating towards learning, not towards opening the app again or just gaining rewards, points and badges. Otherwise it begins to play against its purpose. When gamification it becomes a distraction, it doesn't motivate or encourage learning. It motivates and encourages playing the game.

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